Country spotlight: cruising in Myanmar

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It’s become the hot new destination where everyone wants to go. Myanmar’s rise from relative obscurity to the IT place for river cruise has been remarkable.

The Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers now feature on everyone’s itineraries and new ships are launching each month.

The fame has also pushed Yangon up the ocean port rankings.

The majority of cruise liners dock at the Myanmar International Terminals Thilawa (MITT) terminal, 25 kilometres south of Yangon.

Cruise lines dock for an average of two nights, allowing passengers sufficient time to visit Yangon and nearby Bago. For the more adventurous tourists, there is the additional attraction of ancient Bagan, city of stupors, but this is much further away.

In 2012, nine cruise liners called at Yangon. This is expected to double to 19 ships this year.

According to Myanmar Ports Authority, the country is proving popular amongst large cruise ships welcoming 11 round-the-world cruises during the first three months of this year – that’s three more than the eight the country received throughout 2013.

“Starting in February, 2014, there were six cruises and in March, five. The number of cruises is more than 2013 which is the recorded year of most cruise-entrance,” a Myanmar Port Authority official said.

Among the ships to visit the growing Southeast Asia destination include Dawn Princess during her 24-day World Cruise from Sydney to Dubai and Azamara Quest on her 13-night Spice Route II voyage from Chennai to Singapore.

There is no shortage of luxury cruise lines calling at Yangon including Seabourn, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas. Other cruise liners, which make regular visits to Yangon, are Swan Hellenic, Holland America, Oceania and Celebrity Cruises.

There is, however, much work to do.

A recent Travel Trade Gazette Asia report quoted Diethelm Travel Myanmar manager Than Than Swe as saying the port lacks facilities for holidaymakers and cruise passengers, as it was originally built for cargo and container vessels.

There is no money exchange facilities, neither is there a visitors centre. It is located about 50 kilometres from Yangon International Airport, which can take up to an hour’s drive by car.

But it is in river cruising that has seen an explosion of new offerings particularly from boutique operators including Belmond’s Orcaella, Sanctuary Ananda and AmaWaterways. Then there’s Pandaw River Expeditions, APT and Viking.

This has pushed up passenger numbers on river cruises from 12,437 in 2011 to 14,635 in 2012.

But the Ministry of Tourism and Hotels said in a master plan report published in June last year that the extent the country can grow its cruise market is “currently limited by expensive port charges, laws that restrict vessel size and a lack of a deep water seaport than can receive the large ships that dominate the international cruise industry.’’

The report concluded: ”A strategy for developing cruise tourism and yachting in Myanmar’s inland and coastal waterways is needed to assess the potential of these markets, guide infrastructure investment and set out a program to build management capabilities.’’

Myanmar has more than 1,000 licensed tour companies to arrange for shore excursions and tours. Among the 3,300 licensed tour guides, about 2,000 speak English and a small number are able to converse in Japanese, Thai, Chinese, French and German. But during the peak cruise and tourist season there is a shortage of trained guides conversant in English, Japanese and other European languages.

Myanmar is the second largest country in ASEAN, bounded by Tibet in the north, China, Laos and Thailand on the east, the Andaman Sea on the south and the Bay of Bengal, India and Bangladesh in the west.

The country lies on the crossroad of two of the world’s great civilizations – China and India. It has a population of about 60 million. More than 80 percent of its population are Buddhists, so Buddhism has a great influence on the daily life of Myanmar. Foreign arrivals in Myanmar reached more than two million last year – up from one million in 2012. The government is targeting three million visitors this year. The biggest number of visitors came from Thailand (16 percent) China (12 percent), Japan (eight percent), US and South Korea (six percent each), Malaysia and France (five percent each) and Singapore (four percent %).

The sharp growth of foreign visitors to Myanmar has outpaced the number of hotel rooms in the country. This has stretched the hospitality sector and made the availability of international standard hotel rooms scarce.